A new weapon in the Ukrainian war: Light drones capable of striking Moscow

Tuesday’s attack, which targeted an area near the official residence of Vladimir Putin and has been attributed to Kyiv by the Kremlin, has raised questions about Russian air defenses

Ukraine war
An operator pushes a Ukrainian-made UJ-22 Airborne drone, a model Russian media say was used in the drone attack on Moscow on May 30.Efrem Lukatsky (AP)
Javier G. Cuesta

A new weapon has appeared in the aerial war over Ukraine and Russia. A model of drone with its stabilizers located on the front of the unmanned aircraft has attracted attention after an attack launched on Tuesday in the southwest of Moscow, near the official residence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Novo-Ogariovo. According to experts, the drones could have taken off from Ukraine, as these models have a range of between 800 and 1,000 kilometers (500-620 miles) and can evade anti-aircraft defenses due to their ability to fly at very low altitude. The shortest distance in a straight line between Ukrainian territory and the Russian capital is about 560 kilometers (350 miles).

Although the attack only caused light damage to two buildings, in the wake of the attack on the Kremlin on May 3, tensions have been heightened among Muscovites. The drones flew over the Moscow region in broad daylight and at low altitude, just a few dozen meters above the ground. In a video released by eyewitnesses, a camouflaged anti-aircraft system near a highway was firing at the drones while cars were passing by in the middle of rush hour. Another recording went viral in which a light aircraft was mistaken for one of Kyiv’s most-used drones, the UJ-22 Airborne, which was developed and manufactured by Ukrainian company Ukrjet.

Two days before the Moscow attack, Russian state television had been questioning how drones of this type could evade its air defenses. State Duma deputy Andrey Gurulyov, a retired Lieutenant General, said during an interview on one of Russia’s flagship state television talk shows, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, that the country’s anti-aircraft systems are designed to act against ballistic missiles and other weapons capable of carrying large explosive charges.

Gurulyov said that drones such as those used in Tuesday’s attacks had different specifications and characteristics than conventional missiles, and the Russian Federation did not have the “means” to stop them. He also urged Russian oil companies and other strategic enterprises to arm their facilities with electronic warfare devices, such as jammers, to knock out drones. “Our Armed Forces cannot protect all critical infrastructure,” he added.

A flying object explodes near the dome of the Kremlin Senate building in Moscow, Russia, in this image taken from video obtained by Reuters on May 3, 2023.
A flying object explodes near the dome of the Kremlin Senate building in Moscow, Russia, in this image taken from video obtained by Reuters on May 3, 2023. OSTOROZHNO NOVOSTI (via REUTERS)

Experts divided on drones used in Moscow attack

As soon as the attack was reported, speculation began. Until now, most drone attacks, including the one that targeted the Kremlin, had been attributed to the UJ-22 Airborne, on which the stabilizers are located on the tail of the aircraft. However, Russian military correspondents pointed out that the videos captured on Tuesday featured a drone with a “duck-like” appearance.

“It resembles the Israeli IAI Harop kamikaze drones, which have a range of up to 1,000 kilometers,” said Alexander Kots, one of Russia’s most influential military bloggers. Kots’ identification was backed by Alexei Rogozin, head of the Russian Center for the Development of Transport Technologies and an aviation expert, who said in an interview with Ria Novosti that the structure of the aircraft helps to increase its payload capacity.

According to Russian media outlet Shot, the authorities have found KZ-6 hollow charges among the recovered wreckage of these types of drones. These high-explosive charges, which weigh around three kilograms (6.6 pounds), are capable of penetrating half a meter of concrete and, according to the Ukraine Weapons Tracker, Russia also deploys them in its own drones.

Another possibility was that the drones were Ukrainian A-2 Synitsas — known as the “coal bird,” and whose blue and yellow tail plumage is reminiscent of the Ukrainian flag. However, the dimensions of this type of drone and its limited range meant that to have been involved in the attacks, it would have needed to be transported into Russian territory and deployed in the Moscow area.

According to Russian media, UJ-22s were identified among the wave of drones launched on Tuesday. These unmanned aerial devices have been widely employed by Ukrainian forces in their attacks inside Russian territory. Ukrjet, which is headquartered in Kyiv, describes the UJ-22 as “a multi-purpose unmanned aircraft system that is able to fly at any time of day and season, in visual and adverse weather conditions, in situation of electronic countermeasures.”

The UJ-22 Airborne is capable of evading the minimum radar height by flying at an altitude of 50 meters and can carry up to 20 kilograms of explosives. The aircraft reaches a maximum speed of 160 kilometers per hour (110 mph) and has an autonomous action radius of 800 kilometers (550 miles), although its ground crew can control it up to a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles).

Following the attacks, the head of the Wagner Group mercenary army, Yevgeny Prigozhin, once again launched a tirade against the Russian Defense Ministry: “Filthy bastards, what are you doing? You assholes! Get your ass out of the offices you’ve been put in to defend this country,” the paramilitary leader reportedly said.

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